Daniel Craig’s Swann song

 

© Eon Productions

 

At last!  Two years after its first scheduled release in November 2019 (abandoned when Danny Boyle, originally lined up to be director, departed from the project), and a year-and-a-half after its next scheduled release in April 2020 (abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic), and a couple of months after it went on release in the UK, the 25th James Bond movie No Time to Die has made it to Sri Lanka and I’ve been able to watch it on a big screen.

 

It was odd to finally see the movie in its 163-minute entirety.  I’d become accustomed to seeing it as a two-and-a-half-minute trailer during my infrequent trips to the cinema during the past two years.  Up it popped before Tenet (2020) last summer, up it popped again before Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) in May this year…  And when the No Time to Die trailer popped up yet again before I started watching Dune (2021) in a cinema a few weeks ago, I thought, ‘My God, am I ever going to see this thing as a film?’

 

Anyway, here are my thoughts on No Time to Die, which marks Daniel Craig’s final appearance as James Bond.  I’ll start by listing what I didn’t like about it, then what I did like about it, and then I’ll give my overall verdict.  I will, as much as I can, try to avoid spoilers.  But be warned that some spoilers will inevitably appear.

 

DIDN’T LIKE…

Rami Malek’s character

I’m not dissing Malek’s performance as the film’s big villain Lyutsifer Safin.  It’s just that he doesn’t get enough time to establish Safin as a character or a threat.  Yes, he’s effective in No Time to Die’s opening sequence, which with its arty snowbound setting, violence and jump-scares resembles something from an especially stylish 1970s giallo movie.  But after that we hardly see him again until the film’s final reel.  Also, while a twisted and unsettling connection clearly exists between him and Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann character, the love of Bond’s life, we frustratingly never learn much about it.  Contrast that with 1999’s The World is Not Enough, which was a generally clunky Bond entry.  But at least it was more disturbing in how it depicted the warped relationship between Bond’s nominal love interest Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) and psychotic bad guy Renard (Robert Carlisle).

 

© Eon Productions

 

Rami Malek’s character’s age

Also, Rami Malek looks too young to be the same character who menaced Madeleine Swann when she was a child, as seen in that opening sequence, and who menaces her again as an adult.  My partner watched the film with me and speculated that, because he’s disfigured, his damaged facial skin might have slowed the development of wrinkles…  But no, I’m not buying it.

 

While we’re on the subject of age, I was perturbed that when Bond goes to mourn at the tomb of Vespa Lynd (Eva Green), his late and much-lamented love interest in Casino Royale (2006), a plaque on the tomb-door informs us that she was 23 years old when she died.  What?  In Casino Royale she was working as an agent with the British Treasury’s Financial Action Task Force.  I know her character was young and something of a whizz-kid, but surely she wasn’t that whizz-kiddish to have landed such a job and such responsibilities at the age of 23?

 

Blofeld’s bionic eye

Despite having been banged up in Belmarsh Prison since the events of 2015’s Spectre, it transpires that Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) has been secretly running his Spectre organisation from his cell with the use of a sneaky high-tech bionic eye (replacing the eye he lost in the helicopter crash at Spectre’s finale).  We even get a daft scene where, during a Spectre party, Blofeld manages to orchestrate and comment on events via a bionic-eye-receiver that a minion is carrying around on a tray.  Where did this bionic eye come from?  How did Spectre smuggle it into him at Belmarsh?  Was it Blofeld’s birthday, and a visitor managed to get it to him hidden inside a birthday cake?  And why didn’t the prison’s security systems – which seem pretty thorough, considering that Blofeld only gets to meet visitors inside a mobile metal cage, which is shuttled along tramlines to the meeting area – let this past them?  No, it’s a total failure of plot-logic.

 

How You Only Live Twice’s ‘Garden of Death’ gets shoehorned in

Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice is one of my favourite Bond books, largely because of its bizarre plot.  This has Blofeld retiring to Japan, acquiring a castle and taking up gardening.  Blofeld being Blofeld, though, the garden he cultivates around his castle is a Garden of Death.  It’s infested with poisonous vegetation and wildlife and dotted with boiling, sulphurous mud-pools.  Perversely, the garden’s lethal features begin to draw visitors – Japanese people who want to commit suicide head there to die.  I’d always hoped one day the Garden of Death would feature in a Bond film and it does, finally, in No Time to Die.  But it appears only for a couple of minutes while Safin gives the kidnapped Madeleine a tour of his headquarters and, as a setting, its potential is wasted.

 

The action finale

No Time to Die’s ending has proved controversial.  I have no problem with the events that occur in the last 20 minutes or so.  But I’m annoyed that the finale is rather fragmented and isn’t the big sustained rush of excitement I’d wanted for the end of Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond.  There’s a bit of action, then things stop for a while, then there’s another bit of action, then things stop again, then a bit more action, then another pause…  It isn’t so much Craig going out with a bang as with a stuttering series of pops.

 

Lashana Lynch’s excellent Nomi character features here but isn’t given enough to do.  Come to think of it, instead of just her and Bond being sent to infiltrate Safin’s lair, wouldn’t it have been better if they’d led an army of commandoes to attack the place?  That way, the action might have been more sustained, widespread and exciting.

 

© Eon Productions

 

LIKED…

Madeleine Swann’s arc

Lea Seydoux isn’t my favourite Bond-lady of the Daniel Craig era.  (Four days of the week, I worship at the temple of Eva Green.  The other three days, I worship at the temple of Naomie Harris, aka Miss Moneypenny.)  But at least her character Madeleine Swann gets to develop beyond the supposedly happy ending of Spectre and explore darker territory in No Time to Die.  This is a relief, as I’d heard rumours that the movie would be a re-tread of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and I’d feared that her character’s only function would be to get bumped off early on, leaving Bond to spend the rest of the film on a simplistic revenge mission.

 

Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch

Meanwhile, the other main actresses in No Time to Die are great.  De Armas (who co-starred with Craig in Rian Johnson’s splendid 2019 whodunnit Knives Out) is a delight as Paloma, the supposedly inexperienced CIA agent who’s assigned to help Bond with some espionage-related business in Cuba.  I shudder to think how a Roger Moore-era Bond movie would have portrayed her.  She’d have been a bumbling incompetent whose klutziness was a source of slapstick gags and mocking, sexist humour.  But here, when the shit hits the fan, Paloma proves to be more than capable.  Indeed, if the character has a fault, it’s that she’s not in the film long enough.

 

© Eon Productions

 

As I’ve said, Lynch’s Nomi character – whom, Bond discovers, has been made the new 007 in his absence – could have been given more to do too.  But she still makes an impact and if producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson want to stay in this version of the Bond-verse a little longer and give Nomi her own spinoff movies, I’d happily pay money to go and see them.

 

The regulars

One of the pleasures of Craig’s stint as Bond has been seeing the gradual reintroduction of the franchise’s regular characters, rebooted and played by new but dependable actors – Jeffrey Wright debuting as Felix Leiter in Casino Royale, Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner in Quantum of Solace (2008), Ralph Fiennes as the replacement for Judi Dench as M in Skyfall (2012), and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Wishaw as Q also in Skyfall.  All are excellent again in No Time to Die.

 

I suspect the next Bond will be another reboot and we won’t be seeing these actors in these roles again – Wishaw has already remarked that this is probably his last outing as Q – which is a shame.  I haven’t enjoyed a Bond ensemble like this since Bernard Lee played M, Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny and Desmond Llewellyn played Q back in the days of Connery, Lazenby and Moore.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The fan service

As Casino Royale made clear, Craig’s Bond is a new Bond.  He’s not the same bloke as the one who encountered with Mr Kidd and Mr Wint in Diamonds are Forever (1971), or battled against Jaws in a space station in Moonraker (1980), or rampaged through downtown Moscow in a tank in Goldeneye (1995).  Still, it’s nice that No Time to Die contains references to the pre-Craig Bonds, though not so intrusively that they threaten the continuity established since 2006.  It’s cool, for example, that Bond drives the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger (1964), complete with similar gadgets, and we also see him climb into an Aston Martin V8 Advantage that Timothy Dalton drove in The Living Daylights (1987) – it’s even got the same number plate (B549 WUU)!  In MI6 headquarters, we see not only a framed portrait of Judi Dench’s M, but also one of Robert Brown, who played M during the late Roger Moore years and the Timothy Dalton ones.  Meanwhile, the title sequence echoes that of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by featuring a trident-holding Britannia figure, Union Jacks, clocks and hourglasses.

 

That said, I could have done with a little less of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s music on the No Time to Die soundtrack.  John Barry’s OHMSS theme accompanies one scene set in London and Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World plays over the end credits.  This is wonderful, timeless music, of course, but it shows up the inferiority of No Time to Die’s theme song, sung by Billie Eilish – which, while it’s way better than Sam Smith’s dire The Writing’s on the Wall from Spectre, is still no classic.

 

Bond’s arc

Daniel Craig’s Bond movies have been a daring experiment.  Since Casino Royale, we’ve seen him carry out his first mission and make his first kill, fall in love, suffer tragedy, discover some uncomfortable truths about his upbringing and fall in love again.  In No Time to Die, he falls out of and back into love and has to make some difficult, final decisions.  Things haven’t always gone smoothly – Spectre, in particularly, had to do some clumsy retconning to the story – but generally it’s been a success.  Daniel Craig’s performance in the lead role has helped hugely, of course.  So, hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson for being bold and keeping their nerve.

 

Mind you, I was relieved to see the words JAMES BOND WILL RETURN at the very end.

 

VERDICT?

Well, I liked it more than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.  But due to the issues I’ve described above, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Casino Royale or Skyfall.  Which is a pity, because I’ve liked Daniel Craig’s Bond and wanted him to go out on the highest note possible.  As it stands, I think No Time to Die is pretty good, but it’s not going to alter the rankings in my top half-dozen, or possibly even my top ten, Bond movies.

 

© Eon Productions

Stop getting Bond wrong! (Part 2)

 

© Eon Productions

 

Continuing my ranking of all the James Bond films from worst to best, here are my candidates for the franchise’s top twelve.  Candidates?  No, they are the top twelve.  Don’t even try to argue with me.

 

12: The Living Daylights (1987)

Lately, The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton’s debut as Bond, has seemingly been reappraised and now figures highly in some rankings of the franchise.  It was even placed at number 4 in a recent feature in the Independent.  Well, hold on.  It’s good, but not that good.  After 14 years of quips, raised eyebrows and safari suits, Dalton’s more serious Bond is a breath of fresh air.  While preparing for the role, he even read Ian Fleming’s original books, which no doubt helped.  He and love interest Maryam d’Abo make a likeable couple and the film begins strongly, its first act following Fleming’s 1962 short story of the same name.  Later, alas, it gets unnecessarily muddled and the two main villains, despite being played by Jeroen Krabbé and Joe Don Baker, are rather blah, although Andreas Wisniewski is memorable as the lethal hitman / henchman Necros.  The scene where Necros engages in vicious hand-to-hand combat in a kitchen, using various kitchen utensils and appliances, was evoked in last year’s Christopher Nolan epic, Tenet.  I hated Aha’s theme song at the time, but since then it’s grown on me.  (The same can’t be said for Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill.)

 

11: Dr No (1962)

I feel guilty ranking Dr No, the first entry in the series and the film that turned former Edinburgh milkman Sean Connery into a superstar, at only number 11 on this list.  However, when I saw it as a kid I was disappointed and that sense of juvenile disappointment has lingered ever since.  This was because I’d read Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel Dr No beforehand and loved the fact that (1) it had a giant squid in it and (2) Bond killed Dr No at the end by burying him alive in bird-guano.  I was looking forward to seeing these things in the film, but neither appeared – the squid presumably because of budgetary restrictions and the guano presumably because it would have grossed out the audience.  So, if Connery had got to have a scrap with a giant squid and got to drown Dr No (Joseph Wiseman) in bird-shit, I’d have enjoyed the film more and placed it higher.

 

10: Thunderball (1965)

The previous movie in the series, Goldfinger (1964), got the emerging Bond formula exactly right.  In comparison, Thunderball seems slightly askew.  It’s overlong and the copious underwater sequences slow the pace somewhat.  Still, it has much to enjoy.  Connery is at the top of his game and the film shows off its set-pieces (for example, Bond being pursued during some Bahamas Junkanoo festivities), its gadgets (for example, the jet-pack in the opening sequence) and its villains (for example, Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe) with as much brassy aplomb as big-lunged Welshman Tom Jones sings the theme song.

 

© Eon Productions

 

9: You Only Live Twice (1967)

I’ve always had a soft spot for You Only Live Twice, which has Sean Connery battling Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE in Japan, although it’s commonly rated as one of the lesser Connery Bonds.  Maybe it’s because I lived in Japan for a good many years myself.  The theme song by Nancy Sinatra is, of course, lovely and there’s a good supporting cast, including Donald Pleasence as Blofeld and Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, head of Japanese intelligence and one of the great ‘Bond allies’ – up there with Pedro Armendariz’s Karim Bey in From Russia with Love (1963).  Apart from the Japanese setting, the film jettisons almost everything in Fleming’s dark, introspective 1964 novel and replaces it with an archetypically ludicrous Bond-movie scenario: Blofeld wanting to trigger World War III by nicking American and Soviet spacecraft and hiding them in his secret hollowed-out Japanese volcano-HQ.  The futuristic volcano set, courtesy of production designer Ken Adam, is amazing.  Alas, its impact is vitiated in the final scenes when we see it as an obvious model, being rocked by explosions, with little dolls (representing the casualties of the film’s climactic battle) bouncing up and down on its floor.

 

8: Casino Royale (2006)

Any half-decent movie was going to look good after the debacle of 2002’s Die Another Day, and I feel Casino Royale, which rebooted the series and introduced current 007 Daniel Craig, is slightly overrated as a result.  But it’s still pretty good.  Craig gives Bond an impressively physical exterior whilst suggesting that not all is as solid internally.  As Vesper Lynd, the sublime Eva Green is easily the best Bond girl since Michelle Yeoh.  And Mads Mikkelsen is great as the evil but harried Le Chiffre.  For once, the violence actually looks like it involves pain, stress and fear, no more so than when Bond gets his nuts whipped on a bottomless chair.  Kudos to the filmmakers for keeping the scene in which Le Chiffre gets his comeuppance as low-key as it was in Fleming’s 1953 novel, although the subsequent stuff set in Venice, where Bond has to rescue Vesper from a building sinking rapidly into the Grand Canal, seems a tad gratuitous.  It’s as if it was decided that a big, dumb action climax was necessary to keep the traditional Bond audience happy.

 

7: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Some Roger-Moore-sized eyebrows will be raised at my inclusion of Tomorrow Never Dies in my top dozen Bonds.  But while this film isn’t massively memorable, it doesn’t do anything wrong either.  Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin is easily the best Bond girl during Pierce Brosnan’s four-movie tenure, Vincent Schiavelli makes a brief but memorable appearance as mordant assassin Dr. Kaufman, and the scene where Q, played by a now-octogenarian Desmond Llewelyn, gives Bond custody of a remote-controlled car is delightful.  And Jonathan Pryce has fun playing villainous media tycoon Elliot Carver, trying to trigger a war between China and Britain – aye, right, the Chinese would really be quaking in their boots at the prospect of a war with Britain.  Pryce is clearly channelling Rupert Murdoch, so what’s not to love?

 

6: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Among Roger Moore’s entries (ouch), The Spy Who Loved Me is the one that undeniably belongs in the premier league of Bond movies.  On paper it looks as lazy as all the other ones made in the 1970s and early 1980s – cars that travel underwater, a villain who kills people by dropping them into shark-pools, a giant henchman with steel teeth and a plot that’s been copied from 1967’s You Only Live Twice, though with stolen nuclear submarines instead of stolen spacecraft.  But it’s done with such élan that Moore, director Lewis Gilbert and writer Michael Wood get away with it.  The corking pre-titles sequence here made it a rule for all subsequent Bond movies that they had to begin with a big stunt.  No wonder that in season two of I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Steve Coogan gets upset when he discovers that Michael-the-Geordie has taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me with an episode of America’s Strongest Man.  “Now you’ve got Norfolk’s maddest man!” he rages.  Quite.

 

© Eon Productions

 

5: From Russia with Love (1963)

Although the first Bond movie, Dr No, sets the template for the series – larger-than-life villain hatches grandiose, ludicrous scheme amid gorgeous locations, gorgeous ladies and exciting action sequences – and the third one, Goldfinger (1964), consolidates that template, the intervening movie From Russia with Love does something a little different, with a scaled-down plot-MacGuffin (getting a Soviet defector to the West with a valuable cryptography device) and a storyline that’s unusually gritty and realistic by Bond standards.  Mind you, From Russia with Love still has a great roster of villains – Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb, Vladek Sheybal’s Kronsteen and Robert Shaw’s Red Grant.  Shaw’s vicious battle with Connery late in the film has been emulated in other Bond movies – see Brosnan vs. Sean Bean in Goldeneye (1995) or Craig vs. Dave Bautista in Spectre (2015) – but never bettered.  Also praiseworthy is Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz as Kerim Bey, the wise, wily head of British intelligence in Istanbul who takes Bond under his wing.  Tragically, this was Armendariz’s last movie – during filming, he was dying from cancer, quite possibly caused by his participation in the notorious 1956 John Wayne film The Conqueror, shot just 137 miles from the location of an atomic-bomb test in Nevada.

 

4: Skyfall (2012)

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (2008), the latter a direct sequel to the former, and both preoccupied with Vesper Lynd and Jesper Christensen’s villainous Mr White character, can often seem like they’re locked in their own, private, non-Bondian universe.  From the old, pre-Daniel Craig movies, only Judi Dench’s M remains.  What makes Skyfall a pleasure is that it starts to join the dots and make the series feel like the Bonds of old again, adding a new Q (Ben Wishaw) and a new Moneypenny (the divine Naomie Harris).  It also, eventually, brings in a new M to replace Dench, Ralph Fiennes, who in a gratifying bit of character-development is initially presented as an arsehole but gradually wins Bond’s respect and trust.  Javier Bardem makes a good villain and, when Bond and Dench’s M take refuge at Skyfall, the Scottish Highlands estate where Bond spent his childhood, we get a welcome appearance by Albert Finney as the estate’s irascible but handy-with-a-shotgun gamekeeper Kincaid.  It’s been said that director Sam Mendes originally wanted to cast Sean Connery as Kincaid, which would have been weird… but awesome.

 

© Eon Productions

 

3: Licence to Kill (1989)

The dark horse of the series in more ways than one, Licence to Kill got a bad rap because it underperformed at the box office, earned itself a British 15 certificate with its violence, and offended critics who, after condemning the Bond movies for years for being too silly, suddenly started carping about how they missed the loveable silliness of Roger Moore.  However, if you’re a Bond connoisseur who likes to see 007 taken seriously, it’s one of the best.  Timothy Dalton goes after drug baron Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) when Sanchez maims Bond’s best buddy Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and murders Leiter’s wife on their wedding night.  This, of course, echoes what happened to Bond after his wedding back in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), making Licence to Kill a spiritual if not direct sequel to that film.  Much mayhem ensues as Sanchez and his henchmen (Anthony Zerbe, Don Stroud, Everett McGill, Anthony Starke and a young Benicio Del Toro) meet a range of gruesome fates.  The sight of Del Toro’s sneering scumbag Dario getting fed into a grinding machine is particularly delightful.  But there’s light amid the darkness.  Carey Lowell is excellent as Pam Bouvier, a truly capable and no-bullshit Bond girl, and there’s a lovely sub-plot where Desmond Llewelyn’s Q turns up to give Bond some unofficial help, showing that however much they’ve bickered in Q-Branch over the years, the two men are actually friends.  Also, Robert Davi’s Sanchez is more than a simple thug.  Valuing friendship and loyalty, he likes Bond when he first meets him and is aggrieved later when he discovers that Bond has really come to destroy him.

 

© Eon Productions

 

2: Goldfinger (1964)

The film that ticks all the boxes in the list of things you want from a Bond movie.  Action-packed opening sequence where Bond puts a previous adventure to bed?  Tick.  Shirley Bassey booming her way through a classic John Barry composition?  Tick.  Memorable villains?  Tick.  Gadgets, gimmicks, classy cars?  Tick.  A great Bond girl?  With Honor Blackman, definitely a tick.  A great Bond?  Well, it’s Sean Connery, so definitely a tick too.  Basically, the series could have stopped here, because after Goldfinger there was nothing that could be done again any better – The Spy Who Loved Me’s refrain Nobody Does It Better might have been written about this film.  Incidentally, Auric Goldfinger’s scheme in the movie makes more sense than his scheme in Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel.  In the book, Goldfinger just wants to rob Fort Knox, which would be logistically impossible.  In the film, he cannily plans to explode a nuclear device in the fort, making the US’s gold reserves unusable and skyrocketing the value of his own gold.

 

1: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

It’s generally agreed that Australian actor George Lazenby wasn’t much cop as an actor.  Ironically, his single movie as Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is in my opinion the best one of all.  It helps, of course, that the film follows Ian Fleming’s 1963 novel closely.  The main change is an upgrading of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s fiendish plan.  In the book, he intends to decimate Britain’s agriculture, whereas in the film it’s the world’s agriculture that he’s gunning for.  (Accordingly, the instruments of Blofeld’s plan, the disease-carrying ‘Angels of Death’, are upgraded from a group of brainwashed English schoolgirl-types in the novel to a bevy of brainwashed international glamour-pusses, including Angela Scoular, Anoushka Hempel, Jenny Hanley, Julie Ege and Joanna Lumley, in the film.)  Director Peter Hunt orchestrates some brilliant action sequences on the icy slopes around Blofeld’s Alpine lair, the theme tune possibly constitutes John Barry’s finest hour, Telly Savalas makes a formidably physical Blofeld, and Diana Rigg is splendid as the confident but simultaneously vulnerable Tracy di Vicenzo, the woman who finally wins Bond’s heart and gets him to the wedding altar – though with events taking a dark turn soon after.  It’s arguable that because it’s so different from the usual entries in the series, wistful in tone and tragic in its ending, the awkward and uncertain Lazenby actually fits in nicely.  Here, Bond appears fragile and wounded, and Lazenby is believable in terms of what the character goes through.  You couldn’t imagine Connery swaggering through the movie with his usual insouciance and having the same impact.

 

© Eon Productions

 

And now we have a new Bond movie in the cinemas.  Where will 2021’s No Time to Die figure in future rankings of the 25 Bond films, from best to worst?  Well, I see that the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has just given it a five-star review.  So… it’s probably rubbish.

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

And to conclude my short series of posts and reposts about the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, here’s something I wrote in 2017 after reading his posthumously published book The Broken Road (2013).

 

A while ago I wrote about A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  These were the first two instalments in a trilogy of books describing a walking journey made across Europe during 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Later, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar though nowadays, several years after his death, I suspect he’s best known for being a possible inspiration for the character of James Bond, who was created by his friend Ian Fleming.  A man always meticulous about his research, Fleming can’t have been too pleased when, following the publication of the 1963 Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fermor mischievously pointed out an error to him.  At one point in the book 007 orders a ‘half-bottle’ of Pol Roger champagne.  But, observed Fermor, Pol Roger is never sold in half-bottles.

 

A Time of Gifts chronicled Fermor’s progress from Rotterdam to the Czechoslovakian / Hungarian border, while Between the Woods and the Water continued his journey through Hungary and Romania.  He published these two books decades afterwards, the first volume appearing in 1977 and the second in 1986.  The Broken Road, an account of the final part of his epic hike, across Bulgaria to his ultimate destination Constantinople, was published posthumously in 2013.  Fermor didn’t live to complete the third book.  The finished item was based on a draft he’d written and was edited by the travel writer Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper.  They used information from one of his old diaries to fill in any gaps in the text and, presumably, gave it a final polish too.

 

I read The Broken Road recently.  How does it compare with the previous two books?  And does the fact that it was still a work-in-progress in 2011, when the great man passed away, lessen its impact?

 

The simple and welcome answer is: hardly at all.  There’s one moment where Fermor’s demise leaves things noticeably unfinished, which I’ll come to later.  Otherwise, this is pleasingly on par with the tone and quality of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  You may feel at times that a further edit would have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you probably felt that way with the earlier books too.  A verbose chap, Fermor didn’t subscribe to the Ernest Hemmingway less-is-more approach to writing.  Indeed, his garrulousness is part of the three books’ charm.

 

One way in which The Broken Road differs from predecessors is its darker tone.  Now in the late stages of his journey, Fermor refers to fatigue and jadedness.  He’s also in a place, Bulgaria, where he feels more alien and out-of-his-depth.  Occasionally, he becomes gloomy: “…the falling depression had been hammered home by the unbroken downpour, lashed into a spiteful anti-human fury by the unrelenting north-east wind that felt as though it was blowing without let or hindrance, as it probably was, direct from Siberia…”

 

He’s more aware now of encountering duplicity and hostility and things that as an outsider make him feel uncomfortable.  During inclement weather, cart-drivers refuse to give him lifts unless he pays money that he can’t spare.  One evening at a restaurant-bar he’s disturbed when the patrons explode into frenzied celebration at the news that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia has just been assassinated in Marseilles.  (“They’ve killed the Serbian king!  Today, in France!  And it was a Bulgar that did him in!”)  And there’s a perplexing moment when, for no apparent reason, a Bulgarian youth called Gatcho whom he’s befriended turns on him, screams abuse and threatens him with a knife.

 

Afterwards, a chastened Fermor wonders about “…how much of a nuisance I might have proved to countless people during the last year: had I been a perfect pest all across Central Europe?  A deep subsidiary gloom set in…”

 

Though it can’t have been fun at the time, I actually like seeing Fermor out of his comfort zone here.  This is because in the previous books there are times when I felt he had it too easy, thanks to his privileged background, his wealthy contacts and the easy manner with which he ingratiates himself with those contacts.  As I wrote previously: “Gradually… Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls…  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many aristos that they start to blur into one another.”

 

In The Broken Road, Fermor even has to endure a common hazard for solitary, long-distance budget travellers: the loony who attaches himself to you.  (As someone who’s done a fair amount of travelling, I’ve had many loonies attach themselves to me.)  Here, it’s a misfit called Ivancho, “threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s,” who talks “at such a speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear-splitting, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.  It continued for mile after mile until my head began to swim and ache.”

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently lighted by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”

 

Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

The cave sequence is the climax by default because a few pages later what you’d expect to be the real climax, Fermor’s long-awaited arrival in Constantinople, doesn’t materialise.  Rather, the text terminates in mid-sentence (“…and yet, in another sense, although”) and Fermor’s editors provide an apologetic note explaining that he never recorded the arrival in his draft or in his diary.  They speculate: “Perhaps the end of his journey was weighing on him with the traveller’s bewilderment of at last reaching his goal, and the uneasy question of his future.”

 

From ouranoupoli.com

 

There’s compensation, however.  We get an 80-page epilogue wherein, post-Constantinople and early in 1935, Fermor describes a three-and-a-half-week sojourn on the Greek peninsular of Mount Athos, the ‘Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain’ that’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and that’s off-limits to women.  Indeed, Fermor observes, the peninsula’s off-limits to most things female: “for centuries, no mares, sheep, she-goats, sheep, cats, etc., have lived there, and all the flocks that I saw cropping what grass they could among the rocks, watched by a shepherd boy with a flute, were of rams and billy-goats.”  (Things have now been relaxed, apparently.  According to Wikipedia, “female cats, female insects and female songbirds” are allowed entry to modern-day Mount Athos.)

 

So after A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, I’ve spent about 800 pages in the company of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor during his trek across 1930s Europe.  Like with any travelling companion on a long and often arduous trip, there’ve been moments when I’ve become irritated at him, at his poshness, his puppy-dog enthusiasm, his occasionally infuriating know-it-all-ness.  But at the same time, I feel I’ve formed a bond with the fellow.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.

 

© The National Library of Scotland

The real Princess Diana

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames

 

2020 has been a rotten year and I suspect it still has more rottenness in store.  One of the many reasons why I’ve found it so godawful has been because it’s seen the deaths of two actresses who meant a lot to me, firstly because they both had leading roles in James Bond movies and I’m a big James Bond fan, and secondly because they both starred in one of my favourite TV shows, The Avengers (1961-69).  I’m talking, of course, about Honor Blackman, who died in April, and now Diana Rigg, who died last week.

 

I never got to see Diana Rigg perform on stage, where she appeared in plays by Edward Albee, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Henrik Ibsen, Molière, Jean Racine, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and, obviously, William Shakespeare.  Nor did I catch her when, after becoming a Dame in the mid-1990s and being recognised as a national treasure, she appeared in prestigious TV productions like Rebecca (1997) or Victoria & Albert (2001), both of which resulted in her winning or being nominated for Emmy Awards.  I was living abroad and didn’t have access to English-language TV at the time.

 

I didn’t even watch her much-praised performance as Olenna Tyrell in the TV show Game of Thrones from 2013 to 2017, since I thought I should first read the George R.R. Martin books on which the show was based – something I’ve yet to get around to doing.

 

Despite what I’ve missed, however, I offer here a collection of Diana Rigg performances that I have seen and remember fondly.

 

Playing Tracy di Vincenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ostensibly about James Bond (George Lazenby in his one-and-only shot at the role) tangling with his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas).  However, it also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.  Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo (Rigg), daughter of the boss of the crime syndicate the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the film’s end, Blofeld is seemingly vanquished and Bond and Tracy get married.  Then Blofeld makes a sudden reappearance in the final scene, sprays their honeymoon car with bullets, kills Tracy and leaves Bond as a babbling wreck.

 

Fascinatingly, for a film franchise that’s often accused of de-humanising the Ian Fleming novels that inspired it and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in OHMSS-the film than in OHMSS-the-novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Particularly memorable is her appearance after Bond escapes from Blofeld’s Alpine headquarters.  Hunted by Blofeld’s henchmen, exhausted, frightened even – something that Lazenby, despite or perhaps because of his acting inexperience, conveys well – he takes refuge in a crowded Christmas market / ice rink in the local town.  Just as he thinks he not going to make it, Rigg comes to his rescue, unexpectedly skating into view in front of him like some heaven-sent angel of mercy.

 

Playing Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t the only instance in 1969 of Diana Rigg rubbing shoulders with Telly Savalas.  In Basil Deardon’s black comedy The Assassination Bureau (based on an unfinished Jack London novel), she plays an aspiring female journalist in Edwardian London sent by Savalas’s unscrupulous newspaper proprietor to investigate a secret criminal organisation offering assassins for hire.  Armed with a bagful of money that Savalas has provided, Rigg brazenly hires this Assassination Bureau to assassinate its own chairman, Ivan Dragomiloff, who’s played by Oliver Reed.  Admiring Rigg’s audacity, Reed accepts the commission and, with her in tow, spends the movie zigzagging around Europe dodging the efforts of his own board of directors to kill him.

 

It’s a pleasantly silly film and, admirably, doesn’t waste any time in setting up its convoluted premise and getting into the action.  Rigg is delightful as the uppity Sonya Winter, determinedly doing her job and flying the flag for women’s rights amid a world of starchy, patronising male chauvinists.  Meanwhile, Reed had only just played the brutish Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968) and at the time was in contention to play James Bond, although his reputation for drunken offscreen hi-jinks put 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman off the idea.  His pairing with Rigg in The Assassination Bureau is no beauty-and-the-beast affair, however.  He dials down the roughness and dials up the charm so that their chemistry together is actually very pleasing.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Playing Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood has Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who eventually meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  As the corpses pile up, murdered in ways suggested by Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Richard III, Henry VI: Part One and even The Merchant of Venice (Price rewrites it so that he can extract a pound of flesh from Harry Andrews), the youngest and least obnoxious critic, played by Ian Hendry, and the investigating police officers, played by Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, turn to Lionheart’s supposedly normal daughter, Edwina (Rigg), for help.

 

Distraught about what her father is doing, yet repulsed by the critics who destroyed his career, Edwina is initially a troubled and conflicted character.  Yet as the film progresses, it transpires that Rigg is having as much fun in her role as the Bard-quoting, soliloquizing Price is in his.

 

Taking the mickey out of herself in The Morecambe and Wise Show (1975), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Extras (2006)

Rigg never took herself too seriously.  She teamed up with Britain’s most famous comic double-act Morecambe and Wise for their 1975 Christmas TV special, where she appeared in the inevitable Ernie Wise-penned play.  This featured Rigg as Nell Gwynne, Eric Morecambe as Charles II and Wise as Samuel Pepys.  (“Have you read Ernie’s play?” demands Morecambe.  “Yes, I have,” replies Rigg.  “And you’re still here?”)  Better still is her appearance in The Great Muppet Caper, the second movie starring Jim Henson’s much-loved puppets, in which she plays the snooty fashion designer Lady Holiday, who’s robbed of her jewellery by a gang led by her devious brother (Charles Grodin).  Predictably, Miss Piggy approaches Rigg in the hope of securing a job as a fashion model and insists on showing Rigg her portfolio: “This is me reeking grandeur!”

 

And then there’s a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy show Extras, which is about a struggling actor (Gervais) trying to make ends meet with bit-parts and uncredited roles in films and on television.  This scenario enables the show’s gimmick of having real, famous actors and actresses play versions of themselves – usually twisted, unpleasant versions.  In this particular episode, Gervais gets a three-day job in a new fantasy film starring the then-17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Diana Rigg.  The joke is that Radcliffe is a randy, boorish and clueless teenager.  Whilst eating with him in the studio canteen, Radcliffe tries to convince Gervais that he’s a man of the world by whipping a condom out of his pocket – he’s unravelled it but seems to think he can still put it on – and then accidentally pings it through the air to a nearby table, where it lands on the unamused Rigg’s head.  Radcliffe asks her for his ‘johnny back’ and gets a schoolmistress-ly reply: “May I have my prophylactic back, please?”

 

Later, Radcliffe sidles up to her and inquires, “You still got that catsuit from The Avengers?”  Rigg retorts: “Go away, Daniel.”

 

© BBC / HBO

 

And that brings me nicely to…

 

Playing Emma Peel in The Avengers (1965-67)

By the time Rigg joined The Avengers in the mid-1960s, the show, under the guidance of creator Brian Clemens, had gradually mutated from being a conventional action / thriller show with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel as a pair of crime-fighters to being a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms, both determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.

 

Rigg’s tenure on The Avengers was surely its golden era.  With her Emma Peel character partnering Macnee’s now surreally debonair Steed, and the show being broadcast in colour for the first time, it was a self-confident cocktail of the funny, the silly, the fantastical, the baroque and, occasionally, the gothic and the kinky.  (The kinkiness factor came to the fore in an episode called A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)

 

Rigg brought to the show a bemused, unruffled quirkiness that was the equal of Macnee’s majestic imperturbability.  She was also his equal in being proactive, having no qualms about wading into fights to show off her martial arts prowess or hurtling around in a Lotus Elan.  As a villain in one episode remarked, “She’s well and truly emancipated, is that one.”

 

Rigg wasn’t comfortable about the fact, but Emma Peel also became a sex symbol.  She couldn’t well avoid it, being ephemerally gorgeous and clad in a succession of leather catsuits, mini-skirts and mod-inspired outfits that, inevitably, ended up being sold in the ladies’ fashion shops of the real Britain.  Wisely, though, sex was off the agenda in her character’s onscreen relationship with Macnee’s Steed.  The two indulged in a relaxed, platonic flirtatiousness and left it at that.  Macnee did get a kiss from her at the end of her final episode on the show, when she left him with the parting advice: “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

 

Appearing at the height of the swinging 1960s, but tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted rather than smug, which is how I find many productions from the time, The Avengers, and especially the Emma Peel-era Avengers, projects a charming and not-taking-itself-seriously notion of Britishness that seems light-years removed from the discredited, embittered, clapped-out Britain of 2020.  The death of Diana Rigg, who’d been one of the last links with the show, just seems to emphasise that it’s now all in the past.

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames